VATICAN CITY — A cardinal might ask her directions as Marie Hendrickx walks silently and with purpose through the corridors of the 500-year-old building.
The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), arguably the most powerful in the Vatican, is housed here, within 50 yards of St. Peter's Basilica in Rome — and Hendrickx, the first and only woman official ever to work in the doctrinal section of congregation, knows her way around.
The congregation, once called the Sacred Congregation for the Universal Inquisition (it has this century changed names — to the relief of many Catholics), was founded in 1542 to defend the Church against heresy.
Today, its job is to guard the purity of the Catholic faith, and when necessary, reprove dissenting Catholic theologians. The congregation has made frequent headlines since 1981, the year Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger became prefect. Before that, Catholic theologians like Father Charles Curran and Father Hans Küng were told they could not teach in the Church's name anymore.
Yet the congregation does more than just reprimand wayward Catholic academics.
“We get experts together to study moral and theological questions,” said Hendrickx. “Especially on issues to do with the human embryo. The theme of life is very important to my work.” A notable example was when the congregation gathered a commission of experts in 1987 to study the question of in-vitro fertilization. “We decided that it didn't correspond to the dignity of human life.”
A strong respect for human life came naturally to Hendrickx, a shy and soft-spoken Belgian from a family of 11 siblings, and 44 nephews and nieces. She tells the story of how her sister, a doctor and mother of eight, discovered her seventh pregnancy, “It was completely not planned. But she put her faith in God, and it helped her accept it. Now, she calls that son ‘my little gift.’ It's not true that God doesn't help you. We must have the attitude of faith in life.”
A Dream of Rome
She still marvels at how she came to work at the congregation. After studying theology and philosophy at Belgium's Louvain University, Hendrickx discovered upon graduation that the university had no jobs available. She soon moved to Italy in 1987, where she received a one-year scholarship to study at Milan's Catholic University.
“While I was there, one of my Louvain professors contacted me and said, ‘You should go to Rome!’” In fact, her professor had written to various big names within the Vatican to receive her, people like Cardinal Ratzinger and Cardinal Gantin (one of the highest-ranking Africans in the Holy See, from Benin).
“I thought my professor was crazy. But everyone responded that I was welcome.”
She describes her first trip to Rome as like a dream. Belgian Archbishop Jan Schotte, bishop at the time (today he is a cardinal), brought her everywhere and “invited me to restaurants.” When Hendrickx boldly asked if she could go to Mass with the Pope, Archbishop Schotte arranged it.
“I couldn't believe it. Though I did not know it at the time, the meeting was arranged not so much so that I could meet the Pope, but so that the Pope could meet me.”
When Hendrickx returned to Milan, she received a startling phone call. “I didn't respond because no one ever called me. I think my mother called only once in four months. The cleaning lady answered and said, ‘It's for you!’ It was Msgr. Sepe, of the Holy See Secretariat of State.
He said, ‘The Holy Father needs you. When can you be in Rome?’” Hendrickx, in shock, managed to answer that she could go down the next day.
Nightmare on the Via
After her first dream-like visit, the next seemed like a nightmare.
Hendrickx's wallet was stolen when she arrived in Rome's Termini station. Not knowing where to go or what to do, she took a bus without a ticket — “something I had never done” — and went to the hotel where she had stayed on her previous visit. After hearing her story, hotel management allowed her to stay for free. The next day, she met with Archbishop Schotte — who gave her money — and together they went to visit Msgr. Sepe, who asked her to work on a document.
Though not allowed to speak of it at the time, the document was the draft of the Apostolic Letter On the Dignity of Women. Hendrickx returned to Milan, continued with her classes while beginning work on the letter. Later, she was invited back to Rome to have lunch with the Pope and the group of experts also working on the letter. By year's end, she returned to Belgium to teach at her alma mater.
Once again, the phone rang, and it was Msgr. Sepe.
“The Holy Father wants you to present the document in a press conference,” he told her. Hendrickx, horrified at the thought, wondered why there wasn't anyone else to present the document.
“But how could I refuse the Holy Father?” She went out and bought a new, wool dress for the event. Unfortunately, she forgot that September was still hot in Rome — and suffered through the heat because of it.
The press conference, in September 1988, consisted of a panel including Cardinal Ratzinger and Archbishop Jan Schotte. But Hendrickx was the main speaker. “I spoke about the dignity of women. How God himself made himself small in the womb of a woman.”
In February 1989, Msgr. Alberto Bovone, the number two person there, asked Hendrickx to join the congregation. He later told her that when he first saw her presenting the document, “the Holy Spirit fell on me and I knew we had to capture you.”
As one of the few female officials in the Vatican, Hendrickx is frequently asked for interviews, particularly about the “feminine genius,” as the Pope often calls it.
“Women have a perception of reality that is different from men,” explains Hendrickx. “It is more concrete. Men tend to be more abstract. Women have an intelligence of the heart which is more instinctive. They see the human being first, and are more attentive to the needs of human beings. In a sense, women are more expert on humanity.”
And the role of women in the Church?
Hendrickx believes it has always been in charity. “Women have the charism of love and hold great weight within the Church because they make the Church more concrete.”
As to the role of women within the Vatican, Hendrickx is confident that “with the proper preparation” women will work at all levels in the future. “But it will never be from within the priesthood.”
The issue of a female diaconate is being studied right now within the International Theological Commission, a think tank of sorts within the congregation.
“If you take the diaconate as the first part of priesthood, women cannot be a part of it. It would be contradictory to the idea that only men can be priests, “ said Hendrickx.
“But if you take the idea of ‘deacon’ as helper to priests, then it is possible. Women can help priests in all missions of charity. In fact, she does it better than men.”
According to Hendrickx, the main problem is terminology. “Basically, we need another word. ‘Deacon’ either means ‘helper’ or is associated with the priesthood. We can't put both ideas under the same term. And women are using this against the Church.”
“There are other women working at the CDF in positions requiring a high level of competence and skill, “ said Msgr. Charles Brown, a staff member of the doctrinal section of the the congregation, who has worked with Hendrickx for six years.
“But Marie is the only woman who has ever worked in the doctrinal section. She is an outstanding member of the staff of the CDF, with excellent academic preparation and a calm and cheerful manner.”
Besides working full time at the congregation, Hendrickx also teaches Catholic Social Doctrine at the John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family in Rome.
“The presence of a woman serving the Church through theology is infrequent, “ said Professor Jean Laffitte, vice-president at the Pope John Paul II Instititute.
“Marie's presence as a teacher of theology truly makes real the anthropology that we promote here at our Institute on marriage and family life. After all, we teach an anthropology of communion — which has masculine and female elements … The richness that Marie Hendrickx brings to her work is very much appreciated.”
When Hendrickx is asked further questions about her role at the CDF, she declines to answer because, “There are many things which I can't speak about”.
At the congregation which put out Dominus Iesus and Fatima's Third Secret, it is clear that her job takes her to many places in the theological world. It is also evident that she loves it.
“Everything in life is a gift from God,” she says, “and personal merit has nothing to do with it.”
Sabrina Arena Ferrisi writes from Rome.